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Chips or crisps? Simple ways to differentiate British from American English


Chips or crisps? Simple ways to differentiate British English from American English

Hi, I’m Kevin and I’m originally from London, England. Before I continue with my story, you should know that I’ve been working for an American company for the past three years, having settled to Chicago, Illinois. I have been warned that anyone flying to the states for business or pleasure tends to experience a few surprises with their British English. Conversely, the English you pick up from various US-American TV series doesn't always work in the UK either.

Imagine the following situation: When I picked up my car at the airport, I realized that the “boot” would not open. Asking the mechanic to check upon it, I received an astonished look in response. It would have helped to know that different terms arose in the auto industry: In GB, the engine cover is termed "bonnet" and the luggage space "boot", whereas the States use "hood" and "trunk".

Along the way I’ve learned a few differences that I’d like to share with you in order to help avoid similar situations:

American spelling takes the easy way out

Differences are especially noticeable when it comes to spelling. Whereas the British write "colour" or "flavour", Americans drop the U to make "color" and "flavor". In addition, Z is widespread in the US in words such as "organize" and "analyze" as opposed to the Brits "organise" and "analyse".

American English makes verbs easier for foreign students because it tends to use only the regular past forms of verbs, e.g. "I dreamed" or "I spilled the milk". In British English, the irregular forms are used more frequently, particularly among more sophisticated users of the language. When writing, you then need to know that the correct spelling is "I spilt the milk" (with one L). The development of the verb "get" has even gone a step further: In British English, only the perfect tense "got" is permitted ("He's got better at speaking English"), but in American English, this has evolved to "gotten" ("He's gotten better at ... ")

Biscuits or cookies? Different words in both languages

Beginning in the 19th century, technical developments meant that different words were developed for the same thing on both sides of the ocean. While "railway" became the norm in Great Britain for rail traffic, "railroad" prevailed in the United States. To start with, a plane was called "aeroplane" in the UK, and "airplane" in the US. In the meantime, the US version is in use on both sides of the Atlantic.

Other well-known examples in everyday usage are found mainly in the food area: "Chips", in the United States - as in Germany - describes a snack made of thin fried potato slices, but in the UK it refers to French fries. They call the tasty snack "crisps", while the Americans call chips "(French) fries". A "biscuit" in Britain is a "cookie" in the US. After a meal, Americans ask the waiter for "the check". In the UK: "the bill".

Where am I? The first floor

British and Americans are great at confusing each other with the "first floor": The first floor in the UK is the first floor above ground level (just like in Germany), which the British call the "ground floor". For Americans, however, the first floor refers to the storey they enter when coming into the house - so the "first floor" here is actually the ground floor. So if you're ever invited to a meeting on the first floor, think twice about the differences before you set off.


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